Experimenting with Advertising

Over the past week, I have been tinkering with various web site advertising approaches in the context with a redesign of The Rational Walk.

In general, I have had mixed feelings regarding advertising primarily because, all too often, ads get in the way of the reader’s experience in negative ways. I personally use tools like Instapaper to save long-form articles for later reading and to streamline my reading experience. I have never felt good about imposing a poor experience on readers of The Rational Walk.

Historically, the site has had few, if any, advertisements. The only source of advertising revenue has been derived from the Amazon.com affiliate program where website operators can link to specific Amazon products, such as books, and receive a small commission when people go to Amazon through these links. As a general rule, affiliate revenue has “kept the lights on” in terms of hosting costs and has fluctuated quite a bit based on posting activity. The most affiliate revenue naturally comes from book reviews. The more book reviews that are published, the more affiliate revenue the site earns.

In addition to Amazon affiliate links contained “organically” within book reviews and other articles, The Rational Walk now has a sidebar that contains a dynamically generated Amazon ad unit that typically displays four products, usually books. These products are displayed based on the content that the reader is looking at but might have little to do with the actual article. In addition, the ad could be related to products that the specific reader was looking at on Amazon previously. This could be viewed as intrusive if an ad appears that has nothing to do with The Rational Walk but is related to a prior search.

Google’s Adsense platform is the most popular tool for website monetization and one that has been historically problematic. It is driven by the user’s activity and could display ads totally irrelevant to The Rational Walk. In some cases, content totally inappropriate for The Rational Walk could be displayed, such as penny stock scams or gambling solicitations. However, it appears that Google has made improvements to filtering and one can now exclude certain categories. It is impossible to guarantee that all ads displayed to the user will be “appropriate”, but I am testing out the platform to see how it works out.

There are a couple of things that I have not and will not do regardless of potential advertising revenue. I will not break up the flow of reading by placing advertisements within an article, such as between the second and third paragraph. That is supposedly a good way to increase click through rates but it is unbelievably annoying for me as a reader and I’m not interested in creating poor user experiences. I’m also not putting in place any pop up ads or features that will redirect the reader’s attention completely. We all know what I’m talking about — you’re in the middle of reading an article and some really annoying pop up obscures the content and forces you to click on a box to dismiss the ad before you can return to reading. Talk about a horrible experience.

There is too little focus in today’s world and too much competition for our attention. This is especially true when attempting to read content online. Readers should take advantage of RSS feed readers, tools like Instapaper, and other means of enjoying longer form articles without interruption. At the same time, publishers need to create enduring revenue sources in an age where very, very few users are willing to pay for content. Paywalls and similar schemes are not an option for the vast majority of sites. This leaves advertising as the main revenue source. Some kind of middle ground is necessary.

The Rational Walk has never been about generating much revenue but it is obviously nice to cover the costs of operating the site and to also generate something in addition as tangible evidence of value created by writing. Revenue is “proof” that some value has been generated and, as a writer, it is gratifying to see some money coming in from time to time.

I will be monitoring the effectiveness of the advertising and adjusting accordingly over time.

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